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What Is Your Return on Meetings?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

Bill Brantley
March 3rd, 2023

Agencies have many processes and hurdles they need to clear to spend funds on things like training, new software or office equipment. Any new projects require much documentation to justify the project’s budget. Agencies are very careful about spending their annual budgets because of the many rules and regulations that ensure accountability. Ask any government employee, and I am sure you will hear several stories about how maddening the procurement process can be. I used to joke that the most mysterious thing about the X-Files wasn’t the alien abductions or the strange creatures. The mystery to me is how agents Mulder and Scully had their expenses approved.

However, agencies must be more careful with how government employees spend time. According to Michael Mankins and Eric Garton, organizations spend at least 15 percent of their annual work time in meetings. As Mankins and Garton observe in their book, Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, technology has made scheduling and holding meetings easier. Since 2020, new collaboration technologies have made holding online and in-person meetings even easier. Therefore, organizations hold more meetings without considering the costs to employees and organizations. Many hours of valuable employees’ time are spent in meetings because there are no organizational methods to determine if meeting time is a good investment. How do organizations calculate the costs of meetings?

I have attended meetings in government agencies, nonprofits, volunteer organizations and private sector startups for over thirty years. Frankly, there isn’t much difference from one meeting to another. I created the Return on Meetings metric based on my experiences in all these meetings. The metric captures the benefits and costs of a meeting to help decision-makers determine if a meeting is worth the cost.

First, consider the benefits of the meeting. There are two significant benefits to meetings. The first benefit of a meeting is to announce important information necessary to help the workforce with their jobs. The information could now be distributed through email, chats, texts, posters or another communication vehicle. The rationale for announcing information at a meeting is to allow the workforce to ask questions and receive immediate responses. Estimate the economic impacts of the employees benefiting from the information.

The second benefit of meetings is allowing employees to participate in a decision directly affecting them. Again, participants could interact through email or online discussion boards, but a meeting allows for immediacy and feedback. However, some decisions require face-to-face interaction (even via webcams). For the cost figures, estimate the economic impacts of the decisions. Other than these two benefits, meetings can easily be replaced by other ways of disseminating information.

Having established the benefits, what are the costs of meetings? There are four significant costs to meetings. First, there are the overhead costs of having a meeting room, preparing meeting materials and the salary costs of all the meeting participants. You can obtain these cost figures from your finance office.

Second, there are the lost opportunity costs. What could the participants have accomplished or worked on if they were outside the meeting? The quickest way to calculate these costs is to add all the meeting participants’ hourly pay for the total time spent in the meeting.

The third cost is more challenging to quantify but can have long-term real-cost impacts. I am talking about the emotional costs of meetings. Let’s be honest; you and I have been in dysfunctional meetings. Meetings that have increased the conflict in the workplace that led to key employees becoming disengaged from their work and compelling employees to leave the organization. I would not be surprised if a strong link exists between the increasing number of meetings and the decades-long decline in employee engagement.

The fourth and final cost stems from damaging the organization’s culture. Frequent, poorly planned meetings will negatively affect the culture as employees feel they are not accomplishing “real work.” Even if an employee is not directly involved in a meeting, he or she can suffer the second-hand effects of bad meeting decisions and the emotional toll on his or her superiors.

Return on Meeting equals the realized benefits of the meeting divided by overhead costs, lost opportunity costs, emotional costs (such as employee disengagement),and cultural costs (such as turnover and recruitment costs). Time is a more valuable resource than money and should be treated as such. Before scheduling that meeting, consider if the benefits of the meeting outweigh the costs. Strive for a Return on Meeting that is 1.5 times the benefits over the costs.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at https://www.linkedin.com/in/billbrantley/.

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